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Brothers building a Legacy - the scientist, the politician, the artist
Asten Isaac says, “I don’t really sleep much.”
As a hardcore fan of sleep, this writer is sceptical. We’re talking about the 25-year-old’s first official business venture: a 2008 venture with his then girlfriend, now wife, selling a popular line of spa products. Asten stayed at the store all day, then worked a night job at a prominent Port-of-Spain hotel, for nearly a year.
His older brothers, Arvin, 30, and Atkin, 27, snicker quietly to themselves.
“I’d work hard, then say about, after two or three days, I would shut down, have no contact…
“And then come hard again. So I always had that two-day shut-down time where I’m just off-grid,” he said.
“Sounds like Powergen,” Arvin quips.
“Well, sometimes it’s necessary to run at full capacity when you want to get things done,” Asten says.
The Isaac brothers are getting a lot done these days. Asten is now at the head of a company called Caribbean Highlights, winning good-sized construction contracts. Arvin, the eldest, has been running his own wedding photography company, Naalri’s Photoplanet, since 2008.
“We refer to our photographers and videographers as photo-storytellers and cinematographers. We bring a totally different style to the table with regard to wedding photography, and we also are launching into commercial photography more seriously,” he added.
Atkin, a self-described scientist and environmentalist, teamed up with Arvin last year to form Isaac Holdings Ltd, an agriculture, outdoor maintenance and estate-management company. They’re currently cultivating crops like lettuce, cucumber and eggplant on a five acre plot of land in Manzanilla and building up a good client list for ecologically friendly, outdoor maintenance.
“I’ve served as a conservation officer, so I know about the impact of some of the things we do on a daily basis to the natural environment, like using the liquid lye, bleach and all these other chemicals we use to clean outdoors,” Atkin explained. “I saw this as an opportunity to reduce that by providing a service which was economical and environmentally friendly and of course, profitable at the same time.”
The businesses are about as diverse as you can get: a friend dubbed them “the artist, the scientist and the politician” on Facebook. But individually and collectively, there is a shared vision: not just to be successful, but to be successful as a unit.
“I am super-motivated to seeing success within the family,” Arvin said. “And at the end of the day, we want to ensure that our mother is well taken care of. We want her to live long, because we have plans for her.”
“Does she know you have plans for her?”
“She may not know, you know, but the pace that we’re going, she’ll find out! We will be a force to be reckoned with.”
The brothers grew up with their mother as a single parent, they said, moving around a bit in east Trinidad and eventually settling in Valencia. Raising three young men as a single woman is a big job, but it seems like Angela Isaac coped with it, challenges notwithstanding.
“I used to teach, and I mean, looking at the salary that I have now, compared to what she would have had when we were younger—how on earth could she juggle that salary, send kids to school, have lunch stuff, transportation?” Arvin mused. “She was pretty good at money management.”
How good was she at holding three young black men back from getting into trouble? They all laugh.
“I wouldn’t say she grew us up sheltered, but she had some reins on us in terms of interaction,” explained Arvin. Asten and Atkin nod vigorously. “Certain things and certain places—boy or no boy—we weren’t allowed to go. She monitored it as well, and we get our good share of blowout on the instances we did not listen to her.”
Nostalgic cackling and a discussion of who got more licks than who follow this comment.
The future is definitely brighter now. After a few “hustles” in their teens selling pirated CDs, cutting lawns, selling drums of water for home consumption to neighbours in Valencia without a piped supply —“It always made sense to make your own money. I think that was really the underlying factor,” Asten said—the brothers’ business interests have reached the stage of rapid expansion. Caribbean Highlights has been bidding for bigger and bigger projects and Asten is also looking to get into quarrying. Both Arvin and Atkin have left their full-time jobs to risk it all in their businesses.
And their families are growing as well. In addition to Atkin’s recent engagement, Arvin also has a nearly two-year-old daughter after whom his photography business is named. His wife Natasha is also heavily involved in its day-to-day operations.
But Asten is way ahead of both his brothers; he welcomed his third child in January this year. His eldest is almost three.
“That’s it right there,” he said firmly. “I was happy about making children that young in that I wanted them to become as involved in the growth of business as soon as possible. My biggest son is sitting down there while I’m doing my accounts. And I would show him baseline profit—he wouldn’t understand profit, he’s going on two years and seven months, so he mightn’t understand it in its entirety, but the dialogue of business will begin to get ingrained in his mind: about finance, about handling money, about money management, about doing business, about making investments, about meetings and so on. So that I get him involved and get them involved from early.”
The issue of mentorship is sort of taboo to talk about in relation to black entrepreneurs especially. It just isn’t there most of the time, the brothers agree. They acknowledge their father, but don’t spend very much time thinking or talking about him.
As Arvin put it, “He didn’t play a very active role in our lives. We didn’t think we lost anything, because we had each other. And we had our mom. She is the pillar.”
But through intense networking, marketing and advice from mentors like Richard Noray, Russell Clarke, Mikhail Baynes, they’ve begun to understand what they wanted and how to achieve it.
“I had a very, very heavy science focus at school,” said Atkin almost regretfully. “Asten had a stronger business background in terms of formal studies. Thank God I had a lot of resources online and otherwise; people who shared certain things. Because when you come into the business world you recognise that it’s very different from science; it’s about organisation, it’s about planning.”
“There are a lot of black men in business,” Asten added. “There’s no network because of inexperience. Their parents weren’t involved in business. So there’s no one to mentor them. That’s what I try to do. When young men come to me I encourage them to open their own businesses. I train them and tell them what to do.”
Are people surprised to see three black men, under 30, so focused, ambitious, successful? Sometimes.
Are there negative vibes? Sometimes.
Atkin sees the brothers’ rise as a way to counter any racial tension in professional, businesslike manner.
“Look at the character and qualifications, not the race,” he said.
But Asten has a different take.
“Perhaps we of African descent have a bit of an inferiority complex because we may think that it is harder for us to succeed.
“But I don’t think like that. I think in terms of business. Business is about relationships, it’s not about money.
“Can you provide a service? Are you reliable? Is your price affordable? If I can’t do business with you, then I will look elsewhere.”
Legacy building is also very important to the brothers. They may have started in business as a triad, but they are thinking way beyond that.
Arvin said, “Asten has sons, I have a daughter and she’s going to be married sometime; we will have other kids eventually.”
They’re working toward consolidating the businesses under the name Isaac as a brand. In the Judaeo-Christian canon, Isaac was the start of Abraham’s promised legacy of “many nations.” And this modern Isaac triad is banking on belief that fruitfulness goes with the name.